Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (review)
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Reviewed by
Gauri Viswanathan. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. New York: Columbia UP, 1989. 206 pp. $32.50.

In his Prison Notebooks Antonio Gramsci argues that a class can exercise its power not merely by the use of military force but by an institutionalized system of moral and intellectual leadership that propogates certain ideas and beliefs. For Gramsci "cultural hegemony" is maintained through the consent of the dominated class which assures the intellectual and material supremacy of the ruling class. In Masks of Conquest, Gauri Viswanathan uses this Gramscian model of hegemony to analyze the relationship between British political and commercial interests and the establishment of English Literature as a discipline in India. [End Page 331]

Early in the book Viswanathan clearly states that the literary curriculum was introduced in India not to demonstrate the superiority of English culture but to "mask" the economic exploitation of the colonized. The propagation of English literature among the "natives," from the vigorous attempts by the secularized government schools to the more uneasy attempts by the Christian missionary schools, was ultimately carried out to ensure the authority of the British government and to create a stable state in which British mercantile and military interests could flourish.

In the last of six central chapters, however, Viswanathan cleverly points out the inherent contradictions in the colonial project of creating an educated elite. Aside from developing a dissatisfied class that was denied any suitable employment opportunities, the literary curriculum highlighted the problems of a system which advocated both social control and social advancement.

Viswanathan is also careful not to oversimplify the British educational objectives in India. Using a variety of resources, she demonstrates the continual modification of the British educational goals which together created the discipline of English studies. Her attention to archival material and historical details often leads to fascinating excerpts, such as an examination paper by a certain Nobinchunder Dass of Hooghly College, Calcutta, who effusively praises the colonizer's culture. Much of Viswanathan's work, in fact, concentrates on bringing together various pamphlets, tracts, periodicals, and government sources. But Viswanathan is often inclined to be overly absorbed by her material, as in Chapter Two, "Preparatio Evangelica," where she devotes considerable space to a biographical sketch of Alexander Duff. Indeed, Viswanathan sometimes professes a greater interest in imperial representatives than in the material conditions that produced their work.

Viswanathan's brief concluding section, "Empire and the Canon," points out the dangers of reading nineteenth-century educational practice as continuous with contemporary English studies in India. Warning us about the "illusion of historical continuity," however, does not necessarily demystify the ironies of a postcolonial educational system in which an ostensibly leftist government in Bengal rigidly enforces the study of canonical English texts.

The value of Masks of Conquest finally is its important reminder that educational systems and curriculum developments must be judged in historical perspective. Viswanathan's intellectual history of British educational practice in India is both a compelling account of the relationship between power and culture and an indictment of the exploitative tendencies of ruling class interests. [End Page 332]

Kanishka Chowdhury
Purdue University